Having first set up the annual ‘The South African Sale’ in London in 2007, Bonhams pioneered the first auction dedicated to Modern and Contemporary African Art in London in April 2009, and last year, the auction house felt confident enough about the burgeoning interest in the African art market to split that sale into two, one dedicated to Contemporary art and the other to Modern art, with a few artists like El Anatsui’s straddling both sales.
Gilles Peppiatt, director of Modern and Contemporary African Art at Bonhams recalls it had been too difficult to offer the different sales earlier: “To be honest there wasn’t enough art, in quality and quantity.” That is less of a problem now and this year, the auction house will offer around 110‑120 lots in each sale with “Africa Now: Modern Art” to be held on May 25 and “Africa Now: Contemporary Art” following later in the year on October 4.
Blouin Artinfo spoke with to the auctioneer while he was visiting Singapore.
Who is collecting African art now?
It depends on the category. For modern art, the collectors are essentially in Africa, I would say about 70 percent, and of those 70 percent are from Nigeria, which really reflects the strength of the Nigerian economy — Nigeria’s GDP last year overtook South Africa’s. That’s why if you look at our May catalogue over 50 percent of the works we offer are by Nigerian artists, like Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, who is regarded as a father of modern art in the country, Uzo Egonu, and Demas Nwoko. African collectors still tend to prefer representational works.
And what about for contemporary art?
Collectors are primarily based outside of Africa, and there is an awful lot of interest right now because of the belief Africa is the next big thing, because prices are still modest and there is a lot of interesting work.
Do you agree?
My belief is that it will go up, but not at the pace we saw the Chinese market growing for example; and that’s not a bad thing. We’ve seen solid and continuous growth, maybe 15 to 20 percent a year since we started. Prices are going up but in a healthy way. Prices for Modern African art are still very reasonable, the average price will be around $30,000
Why is Ghanaian artist El Anatsui included in both sales?
People know him for his more recent works, and these sell for a lot of money — recently we had a 2006 tapestry made of bottle-caps selling for $1.17 million. But he also produced some very different work earlier on in his career, and these are bought by very different collectors, the more traditional buyers.
One of these early pieces by El Anatsui, “Jesus Wept,” is estimated at just $21,000‑28,000 in this sale. Why is there such a big difference in prices?
His earlier works are very different in style. We’ve been selling quite a few of these earlier wooden sculptures and they tend to sell for $30,000‑40,000. It is crazy and you would have thought someone might think there is an arbitrage here, but if you show these pieces to contemporary art collectors, they say, “It doesn’t look like him.”
And aside from El Anatsui, who are the most sought-after African artists at auction?